2021 Trafficking in Persons Report: Guatemala


The Government of Guatemala does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Guatemala remained on Tier 2. These efforts included expanding the jurisdiction of the specialized courts, signing a high-level trilateral agreement with neighboring countries to combat trafficking, assisting and referring more victims to care, and increasing funding for government-run shelters and services. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government initiated fewer investigations and prosecutions, achieved fewer convictions, and maintained insufficient specialized victim services given the scope of the problem. In addition, authorities did not increase efforts to combat forced labor, and corruption and complicity remained significant concerns.


Vigorously investigate cases, prosecute trafficking crimes, and convict traffickers with increased focus on suspected cases of forced labor. • Increase efforts to proactively look for indicators of forced labor, particularly in the agricultural sector and domestic service. • Increase funding for and access to victim protection, particularly shelters and specialized services, to include vulnerable populations. • Investigate and hold government officials criminally accountable for complicity in trafficking. • Increase training efforts to identify trafficking victims, particularly among vulnerable populations, such as working children, returning migrants, individuals in commercial sex, and children apprehended for illicit gang-related activities. • Improve the monitoring, oversight, and capacity of shelter operations for child trafficking victims nationwide to address overcrowding, abuse, and neglect. • Given significant concerns about forced labor indicators in Cuban medical missions, screen Cuban medical professionals and refer them to appropriate services. • Amend the 2009 anti-trafficking law to include a definition of human trafficking consistent with international law. • Increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict child sex tourists and others engaged in sex trafficking of children. • Expand training for judges and prosecutors to include training on the use of forensic and other evidence to ensure trafficking cases are investigated and prosecuted as such rather than as lesser offenses. • Provide reintegration and witness protection support to victims once they leave shelters to prevent re-trafficking. • Increase funding for public awareness campaigns. • Create a trafficking-specific hotline capable of answering calls in Spanish and indigenous languages.


The government decreased law enforcement efforts. The anti-trafficking law of 2009 criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties from eight to 18 years’ imprisonment and a fine. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the law did not consider the use of force, fraud, or coercion as an essential element of an adult trafficking offense. The law defined trafficking broadly to include all labor exploitation and illegal adoption without the purpose of exploitation.

In 2020, the government investigated 165 trafficking complaints, compared with 211 in 2019 and 140 in 2018. The Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) reported receiving 16 complaints of potential trafficking, which it referred to the Public Ministry (MP), compared with 24 complaints in 2019. Authorities prosecuted 37 defendants for trafficking crimes, compared with 71 in 2019, 32 in 2018, and 52 in 2017. Some of these prosecutions may have been for crimes that did not meet the definition of trafficking according to international law. Authorities noted pandemic-related restrictions hindered prosecutors’ ability to collect evidence necessary to bring charges in cases of trafficking. In addition, observers indicated prosecutors did not utilize the criminal charge of trafficking in some parts of the country, which resulted in some suspected trafficking crimes being prosecuted as sexual assault. In 2020, authorities secured two convictions for trafficking crimes, compared with 25 in 2019 and 22 in 2018. MP officials reported traffickers received prison sentences of between eight to 13 years and four months and fined of 300,000 quetzals ($38,560). There were two specialized first instance criminal courts to prosecute trafficking-related crimes. In 2020, the government expanded these courts to cover five additional departments. The Guatemala City court’s jurisdiction included central, eastern, and southern departments, and Quetzaltenango’s jurisdiction comprised the western departments of Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, El Quiché, Retalhuleu, Sololá, Suchitepéquez, and Totonicapán. Despite these changes, the judicial system continued to be an obstacle in seeking justice for trafficking crimes. Prosecutorial investigations required approval from a judge and as a result, cases often took longer than one year due to the judicial system’s limited capacity, the MP’s lack of resources, and the lengthy appeals process that could last two to three years. Pandemic-related mitigation measures further delayed court cases, despite some courts moving to virtual platforms in May 2020. In 2020, judges around the country underwent training on handling trafficking crimes; however, judicial officials still had difficulty applying a victim-centered approach and understanding the elements and indicators of trafficking, labeling many trafficking cases as labor exploitation. Some judges, especially outside the major urban areas, lacked adequate training to apply forensic evidence in prosecutions, which led to cases tried as sexual assault rather than trafficking.

The National Civil Police maintained the Special Directorate for Criminal Investigation (DEIC), which had a unit assigned specifically to combat trafficking. However, DEIC staff remained in constant rotations, which reduced awareness and understanding of trafficking investigation protocols. Observers indicated that National Civil Police officers across the country had a lack of understanding of human trafficking. MP officials noted freedom of movement restrictions adopted to mitigate the pandemic hindered law enforcement officials’ capacity to investigate cases of trafficking as they were unable to travel to remote areas. The government had specialized police and prosecutors to handle cases of human trafficking, including forced labor, although local experts reported some prosecutors lacked adequate training.

Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year. Authorities did not have specific measures to deter, prosecute, and penalize government complicity in trafficking crimes. The government did not provide an update to the 2018 case of two government officials charged with trafficking crimes. The government signed a trilateral agreement—at the vice-presidential level—with the governments of El Salvador and Honduras to strengthen international coordination to address trafficking cases. Authorities reported coordinating with foreign governments on cases of trafficking but did not provide specific details. In 2020, the Secretariat against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking in Persons (SVET) organized trafficking-related training for members of the judicial sector, law enforcement, immigration officials, and local leaders in municipal governments, including three training events for National Civil Police officials to assist in human trafficking investigations. In addition, PDH conducted anti-trafficking training for judges in collaboration with the judicial studies school.


The government maintained protection efforts; while it identified fewer victims, the government increased their access to care. Authorities identified 439 potential trafficking victims, of which 352 identified as female, 78 identified as male, and nine LGBTQI+, compared with 678 in 2019, 371 in 2018, 316 in 2017, and 484 in 2016. SVET, in close coordination with members of the Inter-institutional Commission Against Trafficking-in-Persons (CIT), continued to use a national database to track trafficking victim information. Of the 439 potential victims identified, SVET referred 170 to NGO and government-funded shelters and services, compared with 217 in 2019 and 238 in 2018. Of those referred, 113 were victims of sexual exploitation, 41 victims of forced labor, four victims of forced criminality, two victims of domestic servitude, two victims of sex and labor exploitation, and two individuals in forced marriage. The remaining eight individuals did not appear to be victims of trafficking crimes as defined by international law. There were two government-run shelters and four main NGO-run shelters that could house trafficking victims. Shelters provided differentiated and specialized services and treatment plans for trafficking victims as compared with those of sexual exploitation. In 2020, authorities reported difficulty placing victims in shelters, as there was a reduced number of spaces available in government facilities due to social distancing protocols implemented to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In addition, according to sources, some judges were hesitant to mandate shelter placement for victims given the pressing need to mitigate the spread of the virus by maintaining social distancing protocols. The government housed 83 victims (80 females and three males) in government-run shelters, compared with 77 victims (74 females and three males) in 2018, and 89 victims (82 females and seven males) in 2017. In cooperation with other government agencies and NGOs, the government provided services to victims such as food, housing, psychological care, health care, education, and apprenticeships. Foreign victims had the same access to care as domestic trafficking victims. Shelters could also provide services and housing to victims with disabilities.

While authorities made progress to improve specialized victim protection, some challenges remained. There were limited options for adult victims of trafficking and no services for non-transgender adult men. There were limited options for adult victims of trafficking and no services—government of NGO-run—for adult men. In addition, the government did not provide sufficient long-term care and reintegration support to victims, and case follow-up was inadequate. The government provided 8.9 million quetzals ($1.15 million) in funding in 2020 for government-run shelters and specialized services, compared with 7.04 million quetzals ($904,880) in 2019, 19.4 million quetzals ($2.49 million) in 2018, and 17.6 million quetzals ($2.26 million) in 2017. The PDH’s office focused on ensuring the rights of trafficking victims were not violated. In 2020, ongoing political disputes and congressional attempts to replace the ombudsman put its capacity and anti-trafficking activities at risk. Officials had an inter-institutional protocol for the screening, protection, and referral of trafficking victims. SVET also had a protocol for its Immediate Response Team, which had a formal process for identifying, referring, and protecting victims in the short-term. In 2019, SVET created new protocols for victims of sexual violence, including trafficking: Integral First Response Model of Attention for Adult Victims of Violence, Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking; Protocol of Action in Temporary Specialized Shelter for the Care of Adult Women Migrants Victims of the Crime of Trafficking in Persons; and Updated Social Assistance Directory containing information about shelters and other social welfare organizations in the country. In 2020, SVET and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs updated the protocols to regulate the safe repatriation of victims during the pandemic. However, authorities did not take steps to familiarize the interagency on the existence of these protocols or train officials on the implementation of these tools. In addition, officials did not update the protocols to include thorough screening of vulnerable populations. The courts referred child trafficking victims to shelters. Officials from the Solicitor General’s Office and National Police accompanied child victims to the shelters. The Ministry of Development had a care program to support victims, including trafficking victims, of sexual violence under 14 years old. In the past, some observers noted instances of interagency competition and lack of coordination between SVET and the Secretariat of Social Welfare (SBS) affected shelter functioning and complicated victim care processes. In addition to its help with processing trafficking crimes involving children, the Public Ministry’s facility (MAINA) could provide specialized services, including medical, psychological, socioeconomic, and legal assistance, for child victims of crime, including trafficking, sexual violence, and abuse. However, Authorities did not report how many victims of trafficking officials assisted at the MAINA facility. SVET operated a repurposed and renovated shelter in Coban for adult trafficking victims, which included transgender women, but the number of victims assisted was unknown. An NGO maintained a specialized shelter for unaccompanied migrant children that assisted with repatriation, discouraged irregular migration, and screened for trafficking.

Although Guatemalan law required judges to make all referrals to public or private shelters, in practice, judges often did not make timely referrals, delaying access to needed assistance. Judges at times referred child victims to their families, leaving some vulnerable to re-trafficking, as family members often were involved in their exploitation. Experts noted there was a shortage of shelters for child trafficking victims. The government screened returning unaccompanied migrant children for trafficking indicators using SBS protocols for the attention and reception of such children in two government shelters. Authorities reported shelter locations were not disclosed and the shelters had basic security protocols to protect victims; however, some observers noted some government and private shelters lacked basic security features, such as sufficient security cameras and/or security guard presence on the shelter compound. The government made efforts to improve operations at its shelters, but overall monitoring and oversight, especially for facilities serving children, remained weak. The government still had not implemented structural changes to overhaul the system in the aftermath of the March 2017 fire in an overcrowded government-managed shelter, which resulted in the deaths of 41 girls and injuries to others. The shelter had previously faced allegations of corruption and sexual exploitation and was the subject of a UN investigation into the shelter’s management. In 2019, the Ministry of Labor, National Police, and the MP signed an agreement for expanded inter-institutional coordination focused on identification and referrals for victims of labor exploitation and forced labor but did not report implementing the agreement.

Authorities encouraged victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers and made options available for victim testimony either via video, in a Gesell Chamber, or from behind a partition in the courtroom to protect the victim’s identity and privacy; victims could also participate in a witness protection program. The two new specialized first instance courts had specialized psychological services for victims and procedures to ensure confidentiality for victim-witnesses who might be traumatized and/or intimidated to testify. The MP employed social workers and psychologists to serve as liaisons between the office and victims, accompany victims through the proceedings against their traffickers, and assist victims in accessing medical services. For the second year in a row, authorities did not report how many victims it assisted with these services, compared with 270 in 2018. The law required judges to order restitution when sentencing traffickers. The government, however, did not report any victims as having received restitution from 2017-2020, compared to seven victims who received restitution in 2016. The judiciary reported judges consistently ordered restitution, but observers reported a gap in enforcement of ordered for payments and the inability of those convicted to pay restitution. Guatemalan law provided legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims who may face hardship or retribution upon return to their home countries. In 2020, authorities updated the inter-institutional protocol for the repatriation of trafficking victims to incorporate the safe repatriation of victims during the pandemic. Although officials reported repatriating some victims to countries not considered to be at high risk for COVID-19, it did not indicate how many were repatriated or to where they were repatriated. Finding legal employment remained a problem for victims, with no specific system or program in place to help victims find employment. Civil society expressed concern some adult foreign victims chose to leave shelters and return to their home countries due to the lengthy investigation processes.


The government maintained prevention efforts. SVET served as the secretariat for CIT, coordinated government efforts against trafficking, and implemented the national anti-trafficking action plan for 2018-2024. In 2020, SVET held virtual meetings and signed 11 inter-institutional agreements to strengthen collaboration on trafficking issues within the country. SVET published its work plans and statistics on trafficking cases as well as government responses on its public website; SVET and PDH published their annual trafficking reports. The MP anti-trafficking unit compiled an assessment of trafficking cases over the year. Experts commented SVET had a relatively small budget and limited reach, operating primarily in urban areas. SVET officials trained 8,959 individuals on trafficking awareness—in person and virtually—including children, community leaders, teachers, judges, prosecutors, university officials, members of public services, and the general population. It held training events in 10 different languages to reach vulnerable indigenous communities and continued to use social media platforms, local radio broadcasts, and the internet to raise anti-trafficking awareness. In 2020, the Ministry of Labor (MOL), the national police, and SVET formed a new inter-institutional commission against labor exploitation and child labor. The commission operated an online webpage and hotline where complaints could be registered. During the reporting period, officials reported receiving 30 complaints; however, the commission did not report how many were cases of forced labor or if it referred any to law enforcement for criminal investigation. In the past, authorities reported the MOL faced human and financial resource shortages in its ability to conduct labor inspections and identify forced labor cases. The pandemic exacerbated existing gaps. MOL officials reported being overwhelmed with other responsibilities, such as the number of unemployment and worker compensation requests. Officials worked with members of the hotel industry to train employees on trafficking indicators and increase awareness. The government did not have a trafficking-specific hotline but encouraged the public to call three hotlines operated by the National Civil Police, the Attorney General’s office, and the PDH ombudsman, which operated 24 hours a day year-round, were available in the Spanish and Mayan languages, and accepted reports anonymously. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. With the support of a foreign government, authorities hosted an international symposium to strengthen regional efforts to combat and prevent trafficking in persons.


As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Guatemala, and traffickers exploit victims from Guatemala abroad. Traffickers exploit Guatemalan women, LGBTQI+ persons, girls, and boys in sex trafficking within the country and in Mexico, the United States, Belize, and other foreign countries. Foreign child sex tourists, predominantly from Canada, the United States, and Western Europe, as well as Guatemalan men, patronize child sex trafficking victims for commercial sex acts. Traffickers exploit women and children from other Latin American countries and the United States in sex trafficking in Guatemala. The government has noted an increasing number of women traffickers. Traffickers exploit Guatemalan adults and children in forced labor within the country, often in agriculture or domestic service, and in the garment industry and domestic service in Mexico, the United States, and other countries. Experts identified the coffee, broccoli, sugar, stone quarry, and fireworks manufacturing sectors as at risk for the potential use of forced child labor. Forced labor in domestic service in Guatemala sometimes occurs through forced marriages. Traffickers particularly target indigenous Guatemalans, including children, for forced labor, including in tortilla-making shops in Guatemala and foreign countries. Traffickers exploit Guatemalan children in forced begging, street vending, and as street performers, particularly within Guatemala City and along the border with Mexico. Child victims’ families are often complicit in their exploitation. Criminal organizations, including gangs, exploit girls in sex trafficking and coerce young males in urban areas to sell or transport drugs or commit extortion. Traffickers exploit some Latin American migrants transiting Guatemala en route to Mexico and the United States in sex trafficking or forced labor in Mexico, the United States, or Guatemala. Children were increasingly vulnerable to trafficking as online recruitment increased due to pandemic-related lockdowns and school closures. Traffickers have exploited victims in migrant shelters. Authorities have investigated police, military, and elected officials for paying children for sex acts, facilitating child sex trafficking, or protecting venues where trafficking occurs. In 2020, authorities reported there were 432 Cuban medical workers in the country; these individuals may have been forced to work by the Cuban government.